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Up until about the 1950s, one can see instances of social dance (especially ballroom) dominating the social scene. This includes instances such as the tennis court scene with Humphrey Bogart and Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina, several Astaire/Rogers films, and even Peggy and Steve speak of going dancing in Captain America: The First Avenger. Formal social dancing dates back to the Medieval and Renaissance periods, and have included everything from country reels to formal line dancing (as seen in film adaptations of Regency-era novels, such as those of Jane Austen) and ballroom dances such as the waltz or the more modern Charleston and Latin American pair dances.

These dances remain popular to this day in Central and South America, where parties and large social gatherings will include everyone dancing salsa, merengue, and (more recently) bachata. Yet in the United States, this style of dancing (read: "ballroom," which encompasses what were then casual or country dances) has largely fallen out of favor.

My question is this: When did such activities fall out of mode in the United States? And, furthermore, why did they largely disappear from the mainstream?

NB: I am aware of specific instances -- weddings, prom, quinceañera, cotillion, bar mitzvahs, etc. -- where such dances are still performed as part of the social norm. However, these events are rare. The average US dinner party, for example, is unlikely to include pairs dancing at any point in the evening, where at one point the living room would have been cleared of furniture and swing or jazz music played.

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I never had a sense that dinner parties at home ever had a dance component. A carpeted floor would catch on the heels, for one thing, and where do you put this furniture? –  Oldcat May 19 at 22:51
    
@CGCampbell: Take another look at the question. It's asking about a specific style of dancing, not just dancing in general. –  Ben Crowell 2 days ago
    
@BenCrowell I turned my comments into the start of an answer of my own. –  CGCampbell 2 days ago
    
I'm not sure its gone; its just different. –  Bruce James 2 days ago

3 Answers 3

Swing music and swing dancing peaked in popularity around World War II. The war made it difficult to assemble a big band, and there were musicians' strikes in 1942 and 1948. A lot of jazz also started to become less danceable; this started with bebop and continued with Coltrane and West Coast Jazz.

Starting around 1955, rock and roll started to be heard on the radio and attract white listeners. On this 1956 TV clip, you can see Bill Haley performing his big hit "Rock Around the Clock," with an interracial (?) group of dancers doing what mostly looks like swing dancing. The dance craze of 1958 was the stroll, which you can see self-conscious white teenagers doing here. Here is a clip from American Bandstand, also from 1958, of young white people in suits and skirts dancing to "At the Hop." Up until this point, everything looks like a pretty recognizable evolution of European-American pair and line dances, but being done to African-American music.

It seems like the big change happened in 1960-62 with the twist, which was a dance craze started by a Chubby Checker song. It's the first thing I see in these old films that looks like a distinctively African-American dance that's broken free of the conventions of European ballroom dancing. Dwight Eisenhower evidently agreed that this was a radical change:

I have no objection to the Twist as such. But it does represent some kind of change in our standards. What has happened to our concepts of beauty and decency and morality?

People are no longer necessarily dancing in pairs, and there are no defined "steps" -- the dancers are moving their hips without necessarily taking their feet off the ground at all.

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@andy256: I made a few edits to try to clarify. Maybe you could tell me if that helped. The question is when something happened. My answer is 1960-62. –  Ben Crowell Jul 21 at 23:35

I'm not sure I agree with your premise at all. Dance has never 'gone out of style'. Sure ballroom dancing has. What were discos of the 70's and 80's if not group synchronized dancing? Now we still have raves and clubs. Even in the age of indie rock, there was still mosh pit's and club dancing. Dancing in the big band era was different than that in the 1800's and 1700's. It is still changing. But music, and dance, is still very popular with the young people, with each new generation developing their own 'brand' of dance.

Ben Crowell asked about whether I answered the question asked in a comment I made.

The title asks about the demise of "formal social dance". The first paragraph talks about "instances of social dance". The question is "when did formal social dance fall out of favor in the US." It's my contention that formal social dances never fell out of favor, they simply changed with the time. The dance occasion as shown in the movie "Sabrina" occuring in the 50's, would be replace with a disco in the 70's/80's, a line dance in the 80's/90's, and a rave today. There are formal, planned, raves. Do people dress in ball gowns? no. Is that what was asked? no.

Now answering the OP more directly

Within your own clarification, you talk about 'clearing the living room' for some swing dance. That, right there, is not an example of a Formal Social Dance. That is an informal gathering of (young) adults practicing the particular style, or fad, of dancing popular AT THAT TIME. Two kids, 10 years ago, might have done the same thing, to practice break dancing, before heading down to a group of friends where they would all gather to dance in the style of dance (fad) of the time.

Taking it a step further, that group of break dancing friends WOULD be wearing the formal outfits, as required of their peers and audience, of the time in question. If you meant to write the question as to be only about Swing dancing, then my proposition is: it ended when the fad of swing was replaced with whatever came next.... perhaps the sockhop? I don't know, as I was not alive then. My first personal history is with disco. Those were VERY MUCH formal social gatherings.

Yet, only a couple decades after swing was popular, we had the fads of Disco and Country and Western line dancing. Line dancing is still popular in certain European areas. Those dance styles require precise steps, AND for all intents and purposes, both special and fairly specific outfits/clothes and a formal social gathering, in order to occur.

Take a ballroom gathering of the 1700's, perhaps the Court of France. I could imagine that there would be outrage at someone introducing what is now known as a C&W Line dance, but depending on who it was, I could also see the formalized steps required fitting right in at that time. Maybe if Mozart had a banjo?

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According to William Strauss and Neil Howe's book, Generations, U.S. cultural norms are set by generations born immediately after a major war, into a "new age."

Social or ballroom dancing was a staple of the so-called "Missionary" generation, born during and after the Civil War (1860-1882). It was adopted by the two following generations, basically people born up to the mid or late 1920s.

The Baby Boom generation, born during and after World War II, popularized "rock" music (with a new style of dance), thereby putting the social or ballroom dancing on the "back burner." This phenomenon started with the Boomers' coming of age in the 1960s, and continued thereafter, as older generations that preferred the social dancing (born during or before the 1920s) died out. Nowadays, ballroom dancing is the preferred genre only among people over eighty years old in the United States.

Latin American countries adopted (and discarded) U.S. practices with a time lag of several decades, which is why ballroom (or similar) dancing is still popular there.

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